Memory and Regret

Every life contains many millions of decisions. Some big, some small. But every time one decision is taken over another, the outcomes differ. An irreversible variation occurs, which in turn leads to further variations… 

– The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Like the good anxiety-riddled person I am, I live a life haunted by regret. Sometimes regret wakes me in the night, other times it prevents me from falling asleep. Sometimes I am virtually paralyzed, other times regret is a constant humming and churning in the background. Regrets don’t have to be monumental or even life-sized. They are often a series of minor choices, of possibility, what ifs, and if onlys. 

Perhaps the underlying thrum of anxiety and what ifs is what makes books centered around memory and regret so delicious to me. In recent months I have read three books that toy with time, manipulate memory, and ruminate on regret in ways I have never before encountered. All three were uniquely beautiful and impossible to put down. 

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

In this mortality-shattering novel by V.E. Schwab, Addie LaRue is a young woman in 18th century France who, in a desperate moment hoping to escape a life of drudgery, makes a deal with a devil of sorts – she will live forever but be cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets. What follows is a centuries-long life in which Addie is given endless time to question and regret her decisions, to live a thousand lives and make as many mistakes. 

“She will come back to this moment a thousand times. In frustration, and regret, in sorrow, and self-pity, and unbridled rage. She will come to face the fact that she cursed herself before he ever did.”

Addie travels through space and time, meeting countless people yet leaving no mark on the world, doomed to be forgotten the moment she leaves one’s sight. She has gone mad and come back again, steeped in the knowledge that she will never be remembered, but she herself will never be able to forget. And yet, she has found a sort of peace.

“… [T]here in the dark, he asks if it was really worth it. Were the instants of joy worth the stretches of sorrow? Were the moments of beauty worth the years of pain? And she turns her head, and looks at him, and says ‘Always.’”

Schwab’s writing is achingly beautiful, her fantasy disturbingly believable. Addie LaRue is extraordinary and an absolute must-read. 

Like Addie, who is sometimes “…paralyzed by the idea that whatever you choose to do, it means choosing not to do a hundred other things…”, the hero of the next book struggles through life’s possibilities and under the weight of countless regrets.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The Midnight Library is an astonishing fictional exploration of the quantum theory of the multiverse. In VERY laymen’s terms, what Haig presents is a world in which all realities are simultaneously possible, in which every decision and action in your life spawns a different possibility, a different future. Our hero Nora Seed is in the deepest of despair, feeling as though her life has no purpose, regret pressing on her like an unmovable weight. In a moment of desperation, she makes an attempt on her life, only to “wake up” in a mysterious library where she learns that the books that surround her each represent one of the infinite possible paths her life could take. Nora begins to slip into many of these alternate realities, one at a time, living a life that could have been hers if she’d made one different decision, staying in that life only until she feels a new regret.

“‘Life is strange,’ she said. ‘How we live it all at once. In a straight line. But really that’s not the whole picture. Because life isn’t simply made of things we do, but the things we don’t do too. And every moment of our life is a … kind of turning.’ … 

‘Think about how we start off … as this set thing. Like the seed of a tree planted in the ground. And then we … we grow … we grow … and at first we are a trunk…’

 ‘But then the tree – the tree that is our life – develops branches. And think of all those branches, departing from the trunk at different heights. And think of all those branches, branching off again, heading in often opposing directions. Think of those branches becoming other branches, and those becoming twigs. And think of the end of each of those twigs, all in different places, having started from the same one. A life is like that, but on a bigger scale. New branches are formed every second of every day. And from our perspective – from everyone’s perspective – it feels like a … like a continuum. Each twig has travelled only one journey. But there are still other twigs. And there are also other todays. Other lives that would have been different if you’d taken different directions earlier in your life.’

‘It can drive you insane, thinking of all the other lives we don’t live.

‘You see, doing one thing differently is very often the same as doing everything differently. Actions can’t be reversed within a lifetime, however much we try …’

‘The only way to learn is to live.’”

What follows is mind-bendingly, heart-rendingly clever, a story that is visceral and irresistible. As a tourist in her own life, Nora learns to feel empathy and sympathy for herself as well as for others; she learns about potential and regret, about remembering and about forgiveness. As an empathetic reader, I couldn’t help but take a similar journey alongside her.  

“Nora had always had a problem accepting herself. From as far back as she could remember, she’d had the sense that she wasn’t enough. Her parents, who both had their own insecurities, had encouraged that idea.

She imagined, now, what it would be like to accept herself completely. Every mistake she had ever made. Every mark on her body. Every dream she hadn’t reached or pain she had felt. Every lust or longing she had suppressed.

She imagined accepting it all. The way she accepted nature. The way she accepted a glacier or a puffin or the breach of a whale.

She imagined seeing herself as just another brilliant freak of nature. Just another sentient animal, trying their best.

And in doing so, she imagined what is was like to be free.”

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Finally, with slightly less heft and perhaps less gravity, is What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty. Alice wakes up on the floor of her gym having pitched off her stationary bike during a cliche spin class. What is anything but cliche, however, is that Alice awakes believing it is 10 years prior, having completely forgotten all that has taken place over the previous decade. In an adventure that is both unnerving and alluring, Alice stumbles through her life as a stranger, as herself simultaneously 29, at the start of her life and looking forward to her future, and 39, wizened and somewhat jaded by all life has given her. 

“Now it seemed like she could twist the lens of her life and see it from two entirely different perspectives. The perspective of her younger self. Her younger, sillier, innocent self. And her older, wiser, more cynical and sensible self.”

Moriarty’s story is all about memories and how they shape our personalities and our future. Alice has that quintessential experience of erasing the past, undoing regrets, and looking at her life anew. Over the course of the book, 

“She was busy thinking about the concept of forgiveness. It was such a lovely, generous idea when it wasn’t linked to something awful that needed forgiving.”

What Alice Forgot is entertaining and introspective. It is a perfect summer read that moves quickly without any of the saccharine taste of pure pulp. 

What other books have you loved that were built upon a foundation of memory and regret? Do these topics speak to your soul as they do mine?

NB. Dear Ether, it’s been a minute. The past years – the festering climate embodied by the Trump administration, the fear and isolation of the pandemic – it has all weighed heavily on my physical and mental health. But books have been my constant life raft, my solace, and my brilliant therapist. So I reenter my blog gingerly, cautiously, and with an attempt to have no expectations.

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